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WRC Finland: Evans survives drama-filled Friday with slender lead

Toyota’s Elfyn Evans will take a slender Rally Finland lead over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville into Saturday following Kalle Rovanpera’s spectacular exit from the World Rally Championship event on Friday afternoon. 

Evans spent the majority of the day fighting with world championship leader Rovanpera, after the Finn assumed the rally lead on stage two and then went on to reel off five consecutive stage wins.

Rovanpera’s roll on stage eight handed Evans a lead which he maintained across the afternoon to hold a 6.9s gap over Neuville after 10 of 22 stages. 

Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta completed the day in third (+16.4s) ahead of Hyundai’s Teemu Suninen (+28.8s) and Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala (+1m23.7s), competing in a one-off WRC comeback drive. 

Only five Rally1 cars reached service following retirements from Rovanpera, Esapekka Lappi (who crashed his Hyundai in stage five) plus M-Sport duo Ott Tanak and Pierre-Louis Loubet. Tanak suffered an engine issue caused by an impact to his Ford Puma’s sump guard in stage three, while Loubet crashed out in the same stage.   

After an impressive morning loop, Rovanpera continued his stage-winning form heading into the afternoon by winning stage six (Laukaa, 11.78km).

The Finn was surprised to set the pace after stating he was “too careful” on the wet gravel roads. However, he still lit up the timing screens to take the stage win by 0.2s from Katsuta, with nearest overall rival Evans 1.4s slower.

Neuville struggled to unlock pace from his Hyundai in the conditions and subsequently lost third overall to the rapid Katsuta.

Neuville even lost more time on stage seven (Lankamaa, 14.21km) in unusual circumstances as heavy rain began to fall. The Belgian slowed before the flying finish boards due to an issue with his windscreen wipers.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

“I stopped at the yellow sign!” said Neuville. “I was angry with the wipers and I stopped a bit before the finish. In the fast-speed [the wipers] are not cleaning. I couldn't see anything there.”

But the rain didn’t halt Rovanpera, who won the stage with a margin of 0.4s over Evans. But this was to be the former’s final act on Friday.

The rally’s complexion changed on stage eight (Myhinpaa, 15.51km), when Rovanpera lost control of his GR Yaris over a crest, which resulted in the car ending up on its roof at the side of the road. Driver and co-driver Jonne Halttunen were uninjured in the incident that Rovanpera described as a “stupid” crash.

The following Neuville set the fastest time in the stage, despite being slowed by spectators warning him of Rovanpera’s crash ahead. 

“We got slowed down, I don't know, 800 metres before the crash,” said Neuville who emerged in second overall, 10.9s behind new rally leader Evans.

“People were waving and I was accelerating and stopping when actually the road was free. It is what it is, I did what I could to be honest.”

With Rovanpera out of the running, the battle for the lead between Evans and Neuville intensified on stage nine (Halttula, 9.14km). Neuville managed to take 1.2s out of Evans, as he claimed a second stage win to close the deficit to 9.7s ahead of the day’s final test.

“Obviously Kalle is off, so one of our main contenders is out,” said Neuville.

“Elfyn is one of our main contenders in the championship and we are fighting for the victory. Now we're going to go for it.”

Elfyn Evans, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT

Elfyn Evans, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Katsuta ensured the victory fight was a three-driver affair by setting an identical time to Evans.

Neuville continued his charge in the final Harju super special in slippery wet conditions, recording a third consecutive stage win by 2.8s from Evans.    

Finland’s Jari Huttunen ended the day leading the WRC2 class sitting in sixth overall, 12.9s ahead of compatriot Sami Pajari.

Rally Finland continues on Saturday with eighth stages scheduled, comprising 160.68 kilometres. 

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